The Story Of Korean Air Lines Flight 007

On a balmy summers night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on August 31, 1983, passengers had begun to board their flight to Gimpo International Airport (GMP) in Seoul, South Korea. When the plane, a Boeing 747-230B with the registration HL7442, took off at 23:50 EDT, it would never arrive at its final destination.

Following a stop at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) to change crews and refuel, the plane took off headed for South Korea. The pilot on the North American leg of the journey reported onboard radio and navigational equipment problems. An on-duty mechanic was called to come and have a look, and both he and the Captain taking over the flight signed an airline document stating that everything was working correctly.

Planes often refueled in Alaska before crossing the Pacific

It is worth pointing out here that it was typical for aircraft flying to East Asia to land and refuel in Anchorage during the Cold War. Airspace over China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union was closed to western aircraft. Also, the first-generation widebody jets did not have the range to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean.

Mgarin73 via Wikimedia“>


After take-off from Anchorage, Air Traffic Control (ATC) instructed the plane to turn to a heading of 220 degrees. Around 90 seconds later, the ATC told the plane to proceed directly over Bethel, Alaska, and enter the northernmost North Pacific route between Alaska and Japan. In the case of flight 007, this put them 17.5 miles outside of Soviet airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula. About ten minutes after taking off, flight 007 began to deviate to the right (north) of its assigned route to Bethel and continued to fly on this course for the next five and a half hours.

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The pilots of flight 007 did not know they were off course

Still unaware that they were flying off course when flight 007 entered Soviet Airspace, four MiG-23 fighters were scrambled to intercept what to the Soviets was an unknown aircraft. Ten days earlier, high winds had knocked out a significant radar base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Local officials lied and said it was once more operational rather than telling Moscow that the radar station was still down. This delayed the fighters from getting a visual sighting of flight 007, allowing it to cross over the Kamchatka Peninsula and back into international airspace over the Sea of ​​Okhotsk without being intercepted.

George Chernilevsky via Wikimedia Commons“>


Having now left Soviet Airspace, it was determined that it was a foreign spy plane and a military target. When flight 007 once more entered Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Island, three Su-15 fighters were scrambled to intercept. Despite still not having determined if the aircraft was civilian or military, the order to shoot it down was given to prevent it from leaving Soviet airspace for a second time. The lead fighter got into position and fired two K-8 air-to-air missiles at the plane, causing it to continue flying for a further 12 miles before crashing into the sea off Sakhalin Island, killing all 269 passengers and crew.

Mistakes can lead to tragedy

When news of the shoot-down reached Washington, President Ronald Reagan called the attack a “massacre” and a “crime against humanity” with “absolutely no justification, legal or moral.” At the time of the incident, it was probably as close as Washington and Moscow had gotten to war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Even today, civilian aircraft being in the wrong place can lead to tragic mistakes. We have witnessed this with Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down by Russian separatists over Ukraine and Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 shot down after taking off from Tehran.

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